How Politicians Should Act More Like Experienced Programmers

In programming, when you’re trying to solve a problem, you hypothesize about the cause and then test your hypothesis by implementing a solution. Then you re-test. If the problem is fixed (and no other problems arise), you’re done.

But sometimes you were just guessing at a solution, and it turns out you were wrong. Your fix doesn’t make it go away. At this point, a novice programmer will simply try another fix, and try and try until the problem goes away.

This is a bad idea. You have just introduced a lot of unpredictable new additions to your program, some of which may cause bugs themselves.

The experienced programmer, as soon as a given fix doesn’t work, will undo the fix. This means the program is no worse than it was before, and anything he does after this will be the only thing that fixes the problem.

All very well, but how does this relate to politics?

Politicians pass laws based on a theory of whatever social ill they’re attempting to cure. What routinely fails to happen is either measurement to see if the problem has gotten better or undoing the fix when it’s found not to work. Like novice programmers, they keep trying and trying and trying until the law is a morass of conflicting and confusing directives, most of which accomplish nothing in solving the problem and create several other problems of their own.

Case in point, the regulation of pseudoephedrine. Now you have to sign your life away, and if you buy some for yourself and a sick child, you might go over the limit you can buy in one time period. Yes, the law assumes children all buy their own Sudafed.

They were attempting to curtail the methamphetamine “menace” (a minor drug problem turned into a major class warfare weapon by yellow journalism and a drug enforcement beast that feeds on new crises). The problem is that people using over the counter drugs as raw materials to make meth were a tiny part of the supply. It was and remains much cheaper and safer to buy from dealers who are supplied with pure ephedrine from overseas and make it in factories. The availability hasn’t gone down, and the price hasn’t gone up (which would indicate the supply was reduced).

So you have the government jailing parents for buying too much cold medicine for their kids and you have a completely unchanged meth economy. Shouldn’t this tell them it’s time to hit the undo button on that law and try something else?

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